This year’s Wells Fargo Jazz Series has been successful despite the unexpected closure of the Gaillard Center. Jazz series programmer Michael Grofsorean discusses this year’s particular challenges and his philosophy for extending invitations to artists.
Q: How did this year’s Jazz Series compare to previous years?
A: In this festival, because we lost Gaillard at the last second, we did some things that we hadn’t done, really, in my time here, like Dianne Reeves in the Cistern. We typically, historically we have been putting artists like that in the Gaillard, and we didn’t have a choice but to put her in the Cistern, and it worked. So, it was you know, a capacity house. But that, in turn, presents other challenges. How do you make the place function for an artist who is used to performing in a theater? How do you build your sound system so there’s adequate coverage? There’s ramifications.
Q: How does the capacity for the Cistern compare to the Gaillard?
A: Well, you know, as you saw at the Cistern, it’s how many chairs you set up on the grass. It’s turning out that they can be equivalent. The seating is not as comfortable at the Cistern, and that seems like a pedestrian thing to say, but if you’re sitting in the concert for two hours, you know, you get there before the show and then the thing goes 75 or 90 minutes, you’re sitting in this folding chair for two hours.
Q: From one of the smaller acts like Musica Nuda or Monica Salmaso compared to Dianne Reeves, was there a lot of changing the layout of the Cistern seating?
A: You can draw it up on a piece of paper, but you have to actually see how it sits on the ground, because the Cistern is not flat, there’s bricks and places where the trees are. So it’s actually some work to get it right. We used to have an aisle down the middle, and then we finally realized, “Well wait a minute, we’re giving away prime seating to an aisle, so is there another way to do that?” And then I thought we needed more of an aisle, so we made that adjustment. So it sounds odd, but we learn things. Every time we do the festival, we learn things.
Q: Did you have all the performers booked before you knew the Gaillard was going to close?
A: Yeah, we were at the printer.
Q: So it didn’t change the way you booked at all?
A: Well, it did. I had to rearrange a number of people. Some of the things were simply a matter of a change of venue, for example Dianne Reeves went from the Gaillard to the Cistern. But Monica Salmaso was in the Sottile on June 1 and 3, and I was asked to move her out of the Sottile, because Shen Wei, and maybe another concert, had to move from the Gaillard. It was devastating. It’s amazing we came through it as well as we did. I’m frankly surprised. So what am I saying here, Reeves, Marcotulli and Biondini, Salmaso, those got moved around, some a little, some more than a little, and we got lucky, just got lucky that the artists were able to accommodate us. Nigel Redden’s wish was, at least as concerns my artists that I booked, was that he wanted to do whatever we could do to preserve the commitments we made to the artists.
Q: Do you have particular themes for booking artists for the series?
A: I have only one theme, and it’s the best music I can find in the world. Otherwise, I think themes get in the way of that objective. You know, I think it’s just work at this high level. If the next eight artists I found were all, the best I could find, were all from Kansas, we would have an all-Kansas festival. I think that it’s global is simply a function of math. I mean, you have a whole continent of people in South America, what is it, 350 million people or something, it’s not shocking that if you look worldwide for great work that some of it will come from South America, some will come from the United States, some will come from Europe. Asia I’m still poking around, trying to figure out what’s going on in Asia.
Q: Why do you think certain parts of the world have stronger jazz scenes to pull from right now?
A: I’m not a musicologist, so there are people that certainly could explain the nuts and bolts of this better than I can, because I just look at the results. But why, for example, is the scene in Italy so strong right now? It was not strong in the 90s, it was not strong in the 80s. Enrico Pieranunzi explained to me, the way it happened there is American jazz musicians who came through and performed with local musicians, you know, it’s economics. So say, Dexter Gordon would go to Italy, and all the American jazz musicians knew there were two guys you could call in Rome for a pianist, there’s this guy you call in Florence, there’s that guy you call in Milano, and there was a direct transfer of knowledge from these major American guys to these Italians. That knowledge then gestated, and I think led to what we have today. They’re not playing Dexter Gordon’s music, but what they’re creating, their own music, their own compositions are informed by what they learned directly from Ben Webster, from Coleman Hawkins, from Chet Baker, all these people. And Rita Marcotulli, I believe, I think she played with Chet Baker.
Q: So jazz has progressed differently in different areas as a result of cross-cultural collaboration?
A: My working theory is, in a crude way, that you can divide music into music for listening and music for dancing. There’s some overlap, like swing era big band. But the big development for music for listening is European classical music. And then it came to the New World because of all the immigration, collided with Africans who were enslaved, and so these two cultures gave rise to a bunch of children. Blues, jazz in the United States, Cuban music, Brazilian music, you can argue Argentinian music. So there’s all the children in the world. There’s no one word for all those musics, they all have their individual names. But they’re related. And then I think what’s happened now is their grandchildren. So you have, if you think about pianists for example, Carlos Aguirre, take him. He’s classically trained, he went to the conservatory in Santa Fe; you can see how he plays the piano. He’s studied all this new world stuff, and now he’s making music that the only way you can really identify it is by his name. And I think that’s what’s going on worldwide.
Q: You focus on these new interpretations of older ideas and children and grandchildren of older styles, but do you ever considering inviting people who still perform those older styles?
A: It’s a fair question. I confess to having a preference for people who are creating new work that stands on top of that. So there is one instance I can remember, and there may be others I would want to pursue, where it’s absolutely presenting existing repertory, not newly created repertory, and that was in 1993. We had the Gil Evans Orchestra come in and do Porgy and Bess. There’s four or five modern jazz composers that I feel whose repertory needs to be addressed in that way. Wynton Marsalis has absolutely done it with Duke Ellington’s music, you know, he set out to do that. Oliver Nelson is another guy that’s on my mind somewhere, to mount a performance of Blues and the Abstract Truth and those recordings. Gil Evans, which we did, and probably should do again, Duke, who else am I leaving out? Mingus, the great Mingus writing. I mean, no one is playing that music.
I think tributes are a mistake. I think there are plenty of people doing new work who really deserve these stages, and until I run out of them, I’m inclined to stay with it.
Q: What qualities catch your attention in an artist?
A: Really what artists do, if they’re successful, is they study, study, study, study, they gain the technical ability to speak in music. Then the next thing becomes, you put all of that aside and you go inward. You say, “Now what is most profound to me, what do I care about the most to say?” And that’s what you work on. I’ve learned from being a parent, three kids and there’s just nothing alike about them. All these artists over the years, meeting them, I mean, look at the ones you saw this year. What’s similar about any of them? Nothing. They’re just really different. My conclusion is, one of the most amazing things about the human race is how truly different every person is, I mean, very different. It’s just amazing to me. But if you really take an honest inward journey, you’re going to come out with something different. And I think that’s what people are interested in hearing. There’s an authenticity to it, there’s a depth to it that we as creatures, that touches us and that we appreciate.
That’s what artists do. Carlos Aguirre loves the rhythms of Argentina, so he takes some of those rhythms, some of those seminal ideas, and he extends, elaborates and refines it into a new thing. And that’s what Bach did. You know, when you look at the Bach suites, they have these names, allemande, minuet, these are names of dances. We don’t have the recorded information about the folk forms that he drew from, but I’ll bet, and I think there is general consensus, that there had to have been things in the folk culture of his time that he extended, elaborated and refined into new work.
Q: Is there a challenging balance to strike between bringing new acts and still attracting enough people to fill the seats?
A: Constantly. Certainly with a larger venue, you definitely have to address yourself to that. For example, Madeleine Peyroux, I was very interested in having, because I know she has a following, but I also knew that she fit, she does great work, and she fits right into our profile and what we’re doing with the festival, so that there would be a lot of people who would go hear her who didn’t know her work. Dianne Reeves, this is her fourth time here, but still the same case. I’m sure there were people in that house, and it was the first time they heard her. So the answer to your question is absolutely. Because I’m a practical guy. I can’t just sit here and say these things about new work and then nicely go out of business. I like to stay in business so I can do it all, so there’s a mix of absolutely unknown to better known people that, over time, we’ve discovered works and fits into the larger scheme of what’s going on here.
Evan Lewis is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.